Migrants in Central America

Published: 28 September 2016 0:36 CET

Context of the current situation 

Since November 2015, Panama and Costa Rica have experienced a phenomenon that was completely unusual for both countries. At that time, Panama identified an uncommon flow of people coming from Cuba, which did not meet the legal requirements to enter Costa Rica and were stranded at the border community of Paso Canoas. There were over one thousand Cuban nationals at the border and the number continued to grow as the days passed. A few days later, the Costa Rican government granted them a permit to enter the country so they would continue their journey to the United Sates. Thousands of migrants benefited from this measure; however, they could not move forward because the Nicaraguan Government prohibited their passage through the country. As of March 2016, around 8,000 migrants were trapped on Costa Rican soil.

The solution for Cuban migrants arrived between April and May 2016, with the establishment of an airlift between Costa Rica and El Salvador. During the time that these migrants stayed in Costa Rica, the Red Cross carried out a humanitarian intervention which was later supported by other institutions of the government, as well as churches, organized communities and other organizations. This resulted in the opening of 27 shelters, the provision of food, water and sanitation, health promotion activities and, on the part of the central government, the establishment of airlifts. Around 8,000 people benefited from these interventions.

Costa Rica provided 23 temporary shelters, 22 communities as migrant receivers, 15 municipal emergency committees, more than 500 volunteers, and more than 5 million dollars aimed at operations carried out by the Costa Rican Emergency Commission, until April 2016.

In March 2016, when almost all Cuban migrants had left the border, another group of migrants were reported to be stranded at the Panama-Costa Rica border, most of them from African origin: Burkina Faso, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal and Somalia, among other countries. These migrants were trapped between borders because Costa Rica did not authorize their entrance and the Panamanian authorities did not allow them to return to Panama. Some of them managed to avoid police controls and began to concentrate at different areas of the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. These areas did not have any shelter capacity due to lack of access to drinking water, and sanitation and food conditions were precarious.

On 12 April, the new migrants were returned in buses of the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security to the Panamanian border in Paso Canoas. The situation became worse due to the precarious hygiene conditions and the big number of migrants stranded at the border. For this reason, several organizations set up a humanitarian assistance station to offer health check-ups and basic food and sanitation services. This station was ran and operated by the Costa Rican Red Cross.

Regarding Panama, in May 2016, the flow of Cuban migrants increased. They remained in Panama because the Costa Rican government stopped granting permits for the passage of migrants. This resulted in a very complex situation where 4,000 migrants were trapped in Panama again, sleeping in hotels, apartments and houses in the town of Paso Canoas. This situation changed at the end of June, when migrants could take their flights or take alternative routes to continue their journey to the north.

During July and August 2016, it was reported that a large group of Haitian migrants were crossing Panamanian territory. Most of these migrants had stayed some time in Brazil, but given its economic situation, they decided to go north looking for other opportunities. Some of these Haitian migrants remained in Panama and were allowed by the Panamanian authorities to stay at the Albrook bus terminal. In August, the National Directorate for Civil Protection (SINAPROC, by its Spanish acronym) requested the Panamanian Red Cross and the IFRC Regional Office to provide 200 family tents to be used at various migrant reception sites.

The increasing concern for this situation expressed by the countries in the region led to the development of a field assessment conducted by the International Red Cross Movement (the International Committee, the Costa Rican Red Cross and the IFRC), in conjunction with other agencies (OIM, and the Norwegian Council, among others), which took place on 11 and 12 August. Subsequently, that same month, the International Red Cross Movement (the International Committee, the Costa Rican Red Cross and the IFRC) conducted another assessment of the situation at the Panama-Costa Rica border, in the migrant route through Costa Rica, and at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border with the aim of offering suggestions and planning short and medium term actions.

Currently in September there are thousands of migrants on their way to the United States. Many of them start their journey in Brazil and are crossing Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Migrants face enormous challenges in every country, regarding shelter, security and health conditions. Even though the exact number of these migrants is unknown, according to the assessments conducted by the Red Cross National Societies of the region and the Migration Departments of the countries involved, it is estimated that there are currently 3,000 migrants at the Panama-Colombia border, 4,000 migrants in Costa Rica, and 2,000 in Honduras. In Nicaragua, on 2 August, the National Police reported the death by drowning of eight migrants (seven men and one woman) in the Sapoa River in the Rivas department, and two men in the Cocibolca Lake. A total of 10 deaths have been reported.

The migration authorities of each government involved are making great efforts to respond to the high number of immigration procedures, and the emergency authorities are coordinating actions to meet humanitarian needs at specific meeting points or in the migrant route. 

Humanitarian aid in the migrant route

Given this difficult situation and following the IFRC migration policy, the National Societies of the affected countries started to act from the very first moment of this crisis.

The Costa Rican Red Cross has given constant support to the migrant population at the various border points in northern and southern Costa Rica. This service has consisted in pre-hospital assistance to more than 2,157 migrants of different nationalities from the beginning of the crisis in November, and it currently continues with the support of volunteers and the Costa Rican government.

Regarding the other components of the Movement, both the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been supporting actions to facilitate advocacy processes with the governments involves.

In Costa Rica, about 100,000 hot dishes have been distributed since November with the support of the IFRC, the Costa Rican government, Caritas and local donations. In addition, 6,100 hygiene kits were distributed between December 2015 and January 2016 thanks to the contributions of the IFRC Appeal, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Cuban community in Miami and local donations. From April to June 2016, a humanitarian assistance station was operated by the Costa Rican Red Cross, the Migration Department and the Public Force. The station provided first aid assistance, food, hygiene (showers and sanitary cabins), covering the basic need of migrants in transit.

Currently, the Costa Rican Red Cross is running two migrant centres, working in conjunction with the National Emergency Commission, the Public Force and the Costa Rican Social Security Fund. One of the centres is located in southern Costa Rica, in the Golfito canton of Puntarena province. It provides daily assistance to approximately 300 migrants ─ taking into account that the number considerably vary ─. The other centre is located in northern Costa Rica, in El Jobo, La Cruz canton in the province of Guanacaste. It provides daily assistance to approximately 2,500 migrants. These centres provide temporary shelter, first aid assistance and transport to medical centres, as well as drinking water, hygiene services, and psychosocial support.

As for Panama, from November 2015 to May 2016, the Panamanian Red Cross provided three ambulances from the Barú Committee. In addition, in April 2016, the Panamanian Red Cross distributed 2,482 personal hygiene kits, food, and carried out hygiene promotion talks in seven shelters located in Paso Canoas, at the Panamanian border.

Additionally, the Red Cross has been working with the governments of Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras to guarantee the protection of migrants and healthy shelter conditions.

The Red Cross National Societies have coordinated actions with the UNFPA, the International Organization for Migration (OIM) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure that the living conditions of migrants meet humanitarian standards.

In Honduras, the Honduran Red Cross and the Government have reached an agreement to bring support to the migrants at the Nicaraguan border crossing in Choluteca.